Choose life: The case for Judeo-Christian values: IX
There are good people on both sides of the Terri Schiavo tragedy, but chances are that if you affirm Judeo-Christian values, you have opposed pulling the feeding tubes from the severely brain damaged woman’s body.
Why? Because if there is anything that Judeo-Christian values stand for, it is choosing life and rejecting death. As the Torah puts it, “I have put before you today life and death, and you shall choose life.”
Even believing Jews and Christians are not fully aware of how much the rejection of death-oriented Egypt underlies the values and practices of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible held sacred by Judaism and Christianity.
Egyptian civilization was steeped in death. Its bible was the Book of the Dead, and its greatest monuments, its very symbols, the pyramids, were gigantic tombs. One of the Torah’s first tasks was to destroy the connection between civilization (and, of course, religion) and death. That is the reason, I am convinced, for the absence of overt mention of the afterlife in the Old Testament — it was greatly concerned with getting humanity preoccupied with life. With a few noble exceptions, preoccupation with the afterlife has led to denigration of life. The Islamic terrorists and the cultures that support them are only the most recent examples.
One of the greatest insights of Sigmund Freud, who, his atheism notwithstanding, was perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century, was that human beings have a Death Instinct, a death wish that is as strong as the Life Instinct. He wrote this decades before Nazism and the Communist genocides of the 20th century proved his point.
Yet, he was only saying in psychoanalytical terminology what Moses had said in Deuteronomy thousands of years earlier.
The Torah began this transformation with its constant emphasis on rejecting everything Egypt stood for. The ban on eating or even owning bread during the seven days of Passover, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt, the central Old Testament event after Creation, was primarily a symbolic rejection of Egypt. As noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Egyptians essentially invented bread as we know it. “The Egyptians apparently discovered that allowing wheat doughs to ferment, thus forming gases, produced a light, expanded loaf, and they also developed baking ovens.” (Fermented) bread symbolized Egypt as apple pie or hot dogs might represent America. Moreover, fermentation is likened to sin and death in both Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible.
The Torah also banned Jewish priests from coming into contact with corpses. I know of no other religious system that banned its holiest members from any contact with the dead. This, too, was to separate life — the role of the priest was to consecrate life — from death; and most of all, to separate Israelite values from those of Egypt, where priests were regularly involved in religious activities revolving around death.
The Torah’s ban on sexual intercourse during menstruation is also a separation of that which represents life (intercourse) from that which represents death (menstruation). Biblically, menstruation had nothing to do with women being “unclean.” In fact, nearly the entire body of Torah instruction (found especially in Leviticus, the least known of the Five Books) concerning what is incorrectly translated as “unclean” or “impure” is actually about that which is touched by death. Substitute “touched by death” for “impure” or “unclean,” and you will have a far better understanding of the text.
The somewhat better known ban on eating meat together with milk, emanating from the law in the Torah — stated three times — that prohibits the boiling of a kid in its mother’s milk, is another example of separating life and death. Meat (i.e., a dead mammal) represents death; and milk, the life-giving food of mammals, represents life. (Jewish tradition only later added chicken, a non-mammal, to the list of mammals not to be eaten with milk; and major Talmudic rabbis did eat chicken with milk.)
The biblical and Judeo-Christian transformation of human thinking from death- to life-orientation has been a staggering accomplishment — even though it has obviously not been entirely successful even in the contemporary Western world. The cavalier attitude about human life expressed among the leading opponents of Judeo-Christian values — such as PETA, which equates barbecuing chickens with cremating Jews; the Princeton ethicist who believes that parents can commit infanticide under various conditions; those in the non Judeo-Christian West who lack a moral problem with abortion for whatever reason; modern film and art that portray death as kitsch; and the secular culture’s contempt for those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ or believe that Terri Schiavo had a right to live — are all examples of the contemporary attempt to undo the life wish of Judeo-Christian values and affirm the natural death wish that resides in the human soul.
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